Moral Status, Moral Value, and Human Embryos: Implications for Stem Cell Research

Bonnie Steinbock
This chapter refers to the biology behind embryonic stem cell (ESC) research and the question of permissibility of using human embryos in such research. Steinbock concludes that the creation and destruction of human embryos is justified as the aim is to improve people’s lives, which is not equivalent to disrespecting human life. The chapter provides an overview of different criteria that assign moral status to human embryos, such as their biological humanity, which considers embryos as having moral status and moral rights by virtue of being members of the Homo sapiens species. The “conception view” considers the embryo as a human being from the moment of conception or fertilization. This view of the individual human life is put into question by the twinning argument that was invoked in the Warnock Report: the early-stage embryo could still split into multiple embryos. Steinbock further makes the point that biological humanity does not endow a being with moral status. Another way of determining moral status is based on the interest principle, which considers a being worthy of protection if it possesses sentience and feelings. While embryos could potentially become beings with interests, these interests need to be acquired at some point later in life. Even though she considers that human embryos do not have full moral status, Steinbock does argue that they have “moral value”: reasons for special treatment or protection. This suggests placing restrictions on their use in research.